Pictish high king, sub king and priest

Pictish warlord and monk follow the High King in procession, under the watchful feet of an eagle

When Nechtan, high king of Picts, began his religious overhaul, the young king had the fire and zeal of an evangelist which was to transform his kingdom from the Forth to the Pentland Firth. There had been a small awakening in his brother’s reign: Bridei son of Derelei held a council in 697 when Iona abbot Adamnan first proposed, not only that women should be spared the horror of battle, but that the Celtic church come into line with Rome on the date of Easter. Adamnan died before he could persuade his own Iona community to adopt the change. But Nechtan took the baton and ran.

Throughout Pictland, new monasteries were set up, sometimes, as at Turriff, on the foundations of the old, where Celtic observance was replaced by the ‘new’ Roman calculation and, for monks,  their hair cut in the tonsure of a crown. Others, like Rosemarkie and Tarbet may well have been completely new foundations. Curitan (Boniface) of Rosemarkie was a strong supporter of Adamnan (abbot of Iona and Columba’s biographer) at the 697 council held at court. He continued to support Nechtan’s initiative. Maelrubai (‘Maree’) had founded the huge settlement at Applecross in Wester Ross, dying there in 722 at the age of 80. His influence was widespread, did not conflict with the royal strategy, and stretched east to Keith, where his Sammareve’s Fair was [and is still – Keith Show] held annually.
Deer, because of its extreme antiquity, may have changed systems several times. It is certainly known that in the late ninth century – 150 years after Nechtan’s time, it was in Gaelic-speaking hands, because notes in the margins of the gospel Book of Deer written in early Scots Gaelic describe land grants to the monastery,including Biffie and Pitfour which still exist. * Deer has a presumed sixth-century origin; its founder Drosten, a Pict, was probably schooled at a western seaboard monastic house or in Ireland. Deer will have had a ‘Celtic Christian’ flavour;  converted to Nechtan’s Roman regime from 706 and then after 889, been ‘Celtic’ again during the Scots reworking of the Church along the lines of Celi Dé (Culdee) simplicity.

Some older foundations continued celebrating individual saints of the previous regime, like Auchterless (Donan); others, like Monymusk, where Nechtan may have placed a new foundation at Abersnithock [1211 ‘Eglismenythok’] sprung up alongside monasteries celebrating the (then) greatest saint of the catholic church, and Nechtan’s national patron, Peter. The greatest Peter foundation north of the Mounth was at Fyvie. This makes no sense on ecclesiastical grounds, but may reveal much when Nechtan’s own background is unravelled.

It has traditionally be assumed that Nechtan of Derelei was a ‘southern’ king like many of his predecessors. But unlike them, his lineage has never been clearly identified. Even with insight into the Pictish law of succession through ‘sisters of kings’, historians have had difficulty placing him.

Contemporary Irish succession depended on ‘tanist’ rules, where brother succeeded brother, followed by the sons of each. This worked well in a medieval society where it was important to have adult males on the throne. Irish kings then came from only two ruling families. Pictish succession was similar – with the proviso that where there was doubt, the chosen monarch should come through the female line.  For several hundred years no known king of Picts was followed by his son: always by his brother or his sister’s son. One exception occurs in the short reign of Uuen son of Unuist (837-839, Unuist having himself been king 820-834) at the height of conflict with macAlpin, exacerbated by Norse raids, when the Picts seem not to have had living heirs through the female line from which to choose.

Sadly, lack of written sources, combined with suppressed historical ‘knowing’ within Pictland who the leading families were, leaves only a bare-bones king-list of names in the format ‘Bridei son of Beli’. At a time when ruling families throughout the northern kingdoms intermarried, it gave information on the father of the king to Pictish subjects who already knew who the mother was; but gives us no information whatsoever on the female royal line.

Nechtan and his brother were from the same lineage as Bridei son of Beli who fought and won at Dunnichen (Nechtansmere) in 685 and possibly kinsmen to an earlier Nechtan. Many historians assume that Dunnichen conceals within its name ‘Dun Nechtain’ an implied royal seat near Forfar. But ‘Derelei’ is the stumbling block. Mrs Anderson (1973) even suggested ‘of Derelei’ might mean the female line, because it occurs nowhere else in the Pictish lists.

There may be another route to enlightenment.

Nechtan was an energetic, inspired king. Stone churches sprang up throughout his kingdom in the first half of his reign. He ruled through peace and chose to retire or ‘enter monastic life’ in 724, trusting his heir Drust to continue his vision. This did not happen. Drust fought with his brother Elpin, civil war broke out with kinsman-claimant Onuist, and even after Nechtan came out of retirement to attempt reconciliation Onuist eventually won kingship in 729.  Battles of this civil war are all recorded in contemporary Pictish and Irish chronicles. Iona chronicle seems particularly interested in Pictland at this time. Onuist, called by the Irish Oengus, went on to rule for 30 years, many of them as overlord over the Dalriata Scots, so interest shown by Iona is understandable. However Pictish battles which resulted in Oengus as High King were not being fought in the south. They occur almost exclusively on the Mounth or north of it. So, does this mean the old High King had retired to a monastery in the north?

Two especially important entries in the Annals of Ulster are:

AU 729.2 Bellum Monith carno. . .stagnum Looghdae inter hostem Nectain et excercitum Oengusa –  familia Oengusssa triumphauit;

AU 729.3 Bellum Dromo Dergg Blathuug. . .inter Oengus et Drust regem Pictorum et cecidit Drust

AU describes a battle on the Cairn o Mount pass near the headwaters of ‘Loch Dye’ which become the Water of Dye flowing north into Feugh and Dee.  Nechtan’s warriors (hostem) are detailed and Oengus won.

The pass was as strategic then as now in maintaining communication between  the Mearns and the country of Dee, Don and Deveron beyond. Not only did Oengus triumph, according to the entry, but he also killed the tribute-gatherers of Nechtan. This caused conflict as Nechtan depended on his established hierarchy of princelings and landed lords to bring in tithes which funded his court even in retirement.

**The second battle, on 12th August, describes Drust as ‘king of Picts’ killed by Oengus.  AT 729 Tighernach annals record the same battle as the wreck of ‘thrice fifty ships of the Picardaich’ off cape ‘Ross Cuissini’, Troup Head; inland are Cushnie and Little Cushnie. This is a short distance from Dundarg coastal fort called by AU ‘Blathuug’, ‘rich in grain’. The presence of (Drust’s) fleet offshore in such numbers is an indication of Pictish wealth and might of the times.

Nechtan is not mentioned again until c.732 when he died, again in retirement. It is significant that Oengus did not kill him, although he went on to kill every one of his potential rivals in subsequent decades, as well as several Scots princes. Nechtan, it would seem, was venerated. He had unified the kingdom. He was allowed to live out his life in contemplation.  So where did he die?

Built on a Pictish mound, with 13thC core, made grand in 16thC additions, Fyvie Castle's royal domain is now under NTS guardianship

Built on a Pictish mound, with 13thC core, made grand in 16thC additions, Fyvie Castle

Fyvie Castle, once a royal domain, now in guardianship of NTS

Fyvie Castle, once a royal domain, now in guardianship of NTS

Placenames around Fyvie are highly interesting. Certainly in the high medieval, Fyvie as a royal domain was where charters were given royal seals and signatures. It had all the trappings of a royal seat: rich lands stretching over three parishes, an earlier stronghold (modern ‘Montrose’s camp’) abandoned when the grand fortalice was built on the present ‘Castle Dale’; forests and ‘fine woods’, fishing streams and a well-guarded position over Ythan and  Formartine.

Thanages do not always follow boundaries of earlier earldoms or kingdoms, but there is some evidence of continuity.  In 1212, Marjorie, only daughter of the last ‘Celtic’ earl Fergus of Buchan married William Comyn, the king’s justiciar, bringing Buchan into the royal fold.  The former thanage of Conveth (Inverkeithny) was granted to Alexander Comyn, earl of Buchan by Alexander III; and before 1292 John Balliol granted to earl John Comyn  ‘terra theinagii de Fermartyn et de Dereleye’ – the thanages of Formartine and Dereley.  Darley lies within a mile of Rothiebrisbane where two fragmentary Pictish stones were discovered – now embedded in Fyvie kirk.  Darley is to this day pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable. It is listed along with lands in the ‘barony of Formartyne’ in a royal charter of 1503 granted to George Meldrum: ‘lands of Mekill Gurdess, Blachree, Badichale, forest of Kynnawale, fine woods called colloquially Wodend, Litill Gurdess, le Common Lone (Camaloun), Haldaw, Derley, Petty, le Park de Five’ etc.

Nechtan was ‘of Dereley’ or ‘Derelei’.  When baptised in c.706 he is said to have granted ‘the place of his baptism, with the whole of its parish… for the service of Christ’s pilgrim servants… on the river… Gobriah in Pictland.’  Gourdas has been identified in placename terms as Brittonic, close to Pictish and Old Welsh ‘Gwerid-fas’, meaning the stance of men of the Forth (fas=stance or stronghold). Gordonstown shows the same name but with -town added, so ‘stance of men-of-Forth’s town’, duplication or tautology. It is possible that ‘Gobriah’ of Nechtan’s baptism is the closest Pictish word to Gourdas known. There is nearby Gower wood (O.S. Craig-an Gobhar),  and the occurrence in 1405 of an eglis name – Trareglys (Turaraich) which usually indicates an eighth-century church foundation connected with Nechtan’s reform.  The prominence of the monastery at Monkshill with its church-related names is well known.  Fyvie had more than its fair share of chapels, each with its holy well: Peter and Paul in the kirkton, Paul at Easterton; others at Ardlogie, Woodhead of Fetter Letter and St John’s.   Alone, none makes much impact, but taken together, are we seeing one of the earliest royal residences of Pictish kings?  ©2002 Marian Youngblood

Further reading:

Anderson, M. ‘Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland’ (1973)

Watson, W.J. ‘The Celtic Placenames of Scotland’ Birlinn reprint (1993)
Pictish king, courtier and priest under the claws of an eaglecanticle III: 

When Nechtan, high king of Picts, began his religious overhaul, the young king had the fire and zeal of an evangelist which was to transform his kingdom from the Forth to the Pentland Firth. There had been a small awakening in his brother’s reign: Bridei son of Derelei held a council in 697 when Iona abbot Adamnan first proposed, not only that women should be spared the horror of battle, but that the Celtic church come into line with Rome on the date of Easter. Adamnan died before he could persuade his own Iona community to adopt the change. But Nechtan took the baton and ran.

Throughout Pictland, new monasteries were set up, sometimes, as at Turriff, on the foundations of the old, where Celtic observance was replaced by the ‘new’ Roman calculation and, for monks,  their hair cut in the tonsure of a crown. Others, like Rosemarkie and Tarbet may well have been completely new foundations. Curitan (Boniface) of Rosemarkie was a strong supporter of Adamnan at the 697 council held at court. He continued to support Nechtan’s initiative. Maelrubai (‘Maree’) had founded the huge settlement at Applecross in Wester Ross, dying there in 722 at the age of 80. His influence was widespread, did not conflict with the royal strategy, and stretched east to Keith, where his Sammareve’s Fair was [and is still – Keith Show] held annually.

Deer, because of its extreme antiquity, may have changed systems several times. It is certainly known that in the late ninth century – 150 years after Nechtan’s time, it was in Gaelic-speaking hands, because notes in the margins of the gospel Book of Deer written in early Scots Gaelic describe land grants to the monastery, including Biffie and Pitfour which still exist. * Deer has a presumed sixth-century origin; its founder Drosten, a Pict, was probably schooled at a western seaboard monastic house or in Ireland. Deer will have had a ‘Celtic Christian’ flavour;  converted to Nechtan’s Roman regime from 706 and then after 889, been ‘Celtic’ again during the Scots reworking of the Church along the lines of Celi Dé (Culdee) simplicity.

Some older foundations continued celebrating individual saints of the previous regime, like Auchterless (Donan); others, like Monymusk, where Nechtan may have placed a new foundation at Abersnithock [1211 ‘Eglismenythok’] sprung up alongside monasteries celebrating the (then) greatest saint of the catholic church, and Nechtan’s national patron, Peter. The greatest Peter foundation north of the Mounth was at Fyvie. This makes no sense on ecclesiastical grounds, but may reveal much when Nechtan’s own background is unravelled.

It has traditionally be assumed that Nechtan of Derelei was a ‘southern’ king like many of his predecessors. But unlike them, his lineage has never been clearly identified. Even with insight into the Pictish law of succession through ‘sisters of kings’, historians have had difficulty placing him.

Contemporary Irish succession depended on ‘tanist’ rules, where brother succeeded brother, followed by the sons of each. This worked well in a medieval society where it was important to have adult males on the throne. Irish kings then came from only two ruling families. Pictish succession was similar – with the proviso that where there was doubt, the chosen monarch should come through the female line.  For several hundred years no known king of Picts was followed by his son: always by his brother or his sister’s son. One exception occurs in the short reign of Uuen son of Unuist (837-839, Unuist having himself been king 820-834) at the height of conflict with macAlpin, exacerbated by Norse raids, when the Picts seem not to have had living heirs through the female line from which to choose.

Sadly, lack of written sources, combined with suppressed historical ‘knowing’ within Pictland who the leading families were, leaves only a bare-bones king-list of names in the format ‘Bridei son of Beli’. At a time when ruling families throughout the northern kingdoms intermarried, it gave information on the father of the king to Pictish subjects who already knew who the mother was; but gives us no information whatsoever on the female royal line.

Nechtan and his brother were from the same lineage as Bridei son of Beli who fought and won at Dunnichen (Nechtansmere) in 685 and possibly kinsmen to an earlier Nechtan. Many historians assume that Dunnichen conceals within its name ‘Dun Nechtain’ an implied royal seat near Forfar. But ‘Derelei’ is the stumbling block. Mrs Anderson (1973) even suggested ‘of Derelei’ might mean the female line, because it occurs nowhere else in the Pictish lists.

There may be another route to enlightenment.

Nechtan was an energetic, inspired king. Stone churches sprang up throughout his kingdom in the first half of his reign. He ruled through peace and chose to retire or ‘enter monastic life’ in 724, trusting his heir Drust to continue his vision. This did not happen. Drust fought with his brother Elpin, civil war broke out with kinsman-claimant Onuist, and even after Nechtan came out of retirement to attempt reconciliation Onuist eventually won kingship in 729.  Battles of this civil war are all recorded in contemporary Pictish and Irish chronicles. Iona chronicle seems particularly interested in Pictland at this time. Onuist, called by the Irish Oengus, went on to rule for 30 years, many of them as overlord over the Dalriata Scots, so interest shown by Iona is understandable. However Pictish battles which resulted in Oengus as High King were not being fought in the south. They occur almost exclusively on the Mounth or north of it. So, does this mean the old High King had retired to a monastery in the north?

Two especially important entries in the Annals of Ulster are:

AU 729.2 Bellum Monith carno. . .stagnum Looghdae inter hostem Nectain et excercitum Oengusa –  familia Oengusssa triumphauit;

AU 729.3 Bellum Dromo Dergg Blathuug. . .inter Oengus et Drust regem Pictorum et cecidit Drust

AU describes a battle on the Cairn o’ Mount pass near the headwaters of ‘Loch Dye’ which become the Water of Dye flowing north into Feugh and Dee.  Nechtan’s warriors (hostem) are detailed and Oengus won.

The pass was as strategic then as now in maintaining communication between  the Mearns and the country of Dee, Don and Deveron beyond. Not only did Oengus triumph, according to the entry, but he also killed the tribute-gatherers of Nechtan. This caused conflict as Nechtan depended on his established hierarchy of princelings and landed lords to bring in tithes which funded his court even in retirement.

**The second battle, on 12th August, describes Drust as ‘king of Picts’ killed by Oengus.  AT 729 Tighernach annals record the same battle as the wreck of ‘thrice fifty ships of the Picardaich’ off cape ‘Ross Cuissini’, Troup Head; inland are Cushnie and Little Cushnie. This is a short distance from Dundarg coastal fort called by AU ‘Blathuug’, ‘rich in grain’. The presence of (Drust’s) fleet offshore in such numbers is an indication of Pictish wealth and might of the times.

Nechtan is not mentioned again until c.732 when he died, again in retirement. It is significant that Oengus did not kill him, although he went on to kill every one of his potential rivals in subsequent decades, as well as several Scots princes. Nechtan, it would seem, was venerated. He had unified the kingdom. He was allowed to live out his life in contemplation.  So where did he die?

Placenames around Fyvie are highly interesting. Certainly in the high medieval, Fyvie as a royal domain was where charters were given royal seals and signatures. It had all the trappings of a royal seat: rich lands stretching over three parishes, an earlier stronghold (modern ‘Montrose’s camp’) abandoned when the grand fortalice was built on the present ‘Castle Dale’; forests and ‘fine woods’, fishing streams and a well-guarded position over Ythan and  Formartine. Thanages do not always follow boundaries of earlier earldoms or kingdoms, but there is some evidence of continuity.  In 1212, Marjorie, only daughter of the last ‘Celtic’ earl Fergus of Buchan married William Comyn, the king’s justiciar, bringing Buchan into the royal fold.  The former thanage of Conveth (Inverkeithny) was granted to Alexander Comyn, earl of Buchan by Alexander III; and before 1292 John Balliol granted to earl John Comyn  ‘terra theinagii de Fermartyn et de Dereleye’ – the thanages of Formartine and Dereley.  Darley lies within a mile of Rothiebrisbane where two fragmentary Pictish stones were discovered – now embedded in Fyvie kirk.  Darley is to this day pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable. It is listed along with lands in the ‘barony of Formartyne’ in a royal charter of 1503 granted to George Meldrum: ‘lands of Mekill Gurdess, Blachree, Badichale, forest of Kynnawale, fine woods called colloquially Wodend, Litill Gurdess, le Common Lone (Camaloun), Haldaw, Derley, Petty, le Park de Five’ etc.

Nechtan was ‘of Dereley’ or ‘Derelei’.  When baptised in c.706 he is said to have granted ‘the place of his baptism, with the whole of its parish… for the service of Christ’s pilgrim servants… on the river… Gobriah in Pictland.’  Gourdas has been identified in placename terms as Brittonic, close to Pictish and Old Welsh ‘Gwerid-fas’, meaning the stance of men of the Forth (fas=stance or stronghold). Gordonstown shows the same name but with -town added, so ‘stance of men-of-Forth’s town’, duplication or tautology. It is possible that ‘Gobriah’ of Nechtan’s baptism is the closest Pictish word to Gourdas known. There is nearby Gower wood (O.S. Craig-an Gobhar),  and the occurrence in 1405 of an eglis name – Trareglys (Turaraich) which usually indicates an eighth-century church foundation connected with Nechtan’s reform.  The prominence of the monastery at Monkshill with its church-related names is well known.  Fyvie had more than its fair share of chapels, each with its holy well: Peter and Paul in the kirkton, Paul at Easterton; others at Ardlogie, Woodhead of Fetter Letter and St John’s.   Alone, none makes much impact, but taken together, are we seeing one of the earliest royal residences of Pictish kings?  ©2002-9 Marian Youngblood

Further reading:

Anderson, M. ‘Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland’ (1973)

Watson, W.J. ‘The Celtic Placenames of Scotland’ Birlinn reprint (1993)

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